They were out working the camels. The mother raised her arms as if exhorting a crowd from a mountaintop, hazing big ornery bulls toward a water trough. Hah! she said.
One grown daughter horsed 50-pound bales of alfalfa from the bed of a pickup truck. She wore a flowered smock. The other daughter sat behind the truck’s steering wheel, yanking on her black abaya and gloves as we approached. They were from the Billi tribe. They had just walked their animals eight days south from Duba. They owned some droopy white tents. Indigo shadows pooled under their camels. Their men were away with the sheep.
“You can help yourselves to the water,” the old woman said.
She pointed at a broken-down old tanker truck. She spoke to us from ten paces away and kept that distance. She stood very thin and stiff and straight. Even cloaked, you could tell she was tough. She clutched a 12-inch butcher’s knife behind her back.
“Are you afraid of us?” Ali asked. “Is that why you carry the knife?”
“I’m not afraid,” she said. “I’m just carrying this knife.”
The old woman’s name was Oum Shileweah. Her truck-driving daughter was Ghazal—Gazelle. Women are banned from driving in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom’s powerful clerics say that granting females such independence would corrupt public morals. But in the desert mobility is survival. Necessity—as well as her father and brothers—have taught Ghazal and thousands of other rural Saudi women like her to work the accelerator. Ghazal’s morals appeared intact. And nobody was going to stop her. Let them try to get past Oum Shileweah.